Ohio State travels to Madison for a showdown on Saturday against Wisconsin under the lights at Camp Randall Stadium, where the Badgers always seem to give the Buckeyes a stern test. Four of the last five games between Ohio State and Wisconsin at Camp Randall have seen the final result be decided by seven points or less. The most recent meeting between the two schools in Madison came back in 2012, where Ohio State squeaked out a 21-14 victory over the Badgers in overtime.
Ohio State is coming off a win last week over Indiana, in which the Buckeyes didn’t look great, but still ended up winning by 21 points. Ohio State didn’t lean as much on J.T. Barrett’s arm against the Hoosiers, but they did rely on the redshirt junior quarterback’s legs, giving Barrett a career-high 26 carries. For many, Ohio State’s offensive output left a lot to be desired, as the Buckeyes failed to score 40 points and amass at least 400 yards of total offense for the first time since last season’s loss to Michigan State.
A lot has changed since the last time these two schools played each other in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis, where Ohio State shutout Wisconsin 59-0. In that blowout victory, Cardale Jones was making his first-ever start, as J.T. Barrett was injured the previous week against Michigan. The lopsided victory over the Badgers helped propel Ohio State into the College Football Playoff, which they eventually won.
When Ohio State last took on Wisconsin, current Badgers head coach Paul Chryst was still coaching at Pittsburgh. But it isn’t like Chryst is unfamiliar with what it means to play Ohio State, since not only did Chryst play for the Badgers from 1986-1988, but he also served as Wisconsin’s tight ends coach in 2002, as well as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator from 2005-2011. This marks Chryst’s second season as the head coach of the Badgers, and so far he has posted a 14-4 record while in charge at his alma mater.
So far this year Chryst has had a lot to deal with, but he has navigated the turbulent waters rather well. Not only has Wisconsin lost linebackers Chris Orr and Vince Biegel to injuries, but they’ve also had to deal with inconsistent quarterback play. Redshirt senior Bart Houston won the starting quarterback job before the season, but was replaced by redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook after the Georgia State game. Add in the tough schedule Wisconsin has faced to start the season, and the fact that the Badgers are sporting a 4-1 record heading into this game speaks volumes of the job Chryst is doing in just his second season.
What is carrying Wisconsin is their defense, which while not flashy, play solid, fundamental defense. What keeps Wisconsin in games is they don’t give up the big play. Through five games this year, the Badgers have only given up five plays of 20 yards or more. Something will have to give against an Ohio State team that has the ability on any given play to break off a huge gain with the athleticism they possess on offense.
Ohio State’s biggest advantages
Silver bullets reloaded. Ohio State’s defense should give redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook plenty of problems on Saturday night. Hornibrook will be making just his third start for the Badgers, and had a pretty rough go of it last time out against Michigan, only completing nine of his 25 passes, and throwing three interceptions. The Buckeyes have intercepted 10 passes through five games this year, with four of those interceptions being made by Malik Hooker.
Ohio State was able to neutralize Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine a few weeks ago in Norman, and Wisconsin doesn’t quite have the explosive talent that the Sooners do. Where Wisconsin has really been struggling of late has been with their running attack. Senior running back Corey Clement is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry this year on 82 carries. After averaging 8.2 yards per carry during his freshman year, Clement’s per carry average has gotten worse each year since. With Ohio State yielding just 97.8 yards per game on the ground to opponents, it’s hard to believe that Clement is going to find much room to run.
If Ohio State is able to bottle up the Wisconsin rushing attack, it’ll put added pressure on Hornibrook, something that he might not be ready for. If Ohio State is able to jump out to a lead, Wisconsin will be forced to do something they aren’t entirely comfortable with, and that’s throwing the football. If the Wisconsin defense isn’t able to slow down the Ohio State offense, the Badgers just aren’t dynamic enough on offense to be able to keep up with Ohio State on the scoreboard.
Keep ‘em on their heels. There’s no way to sugarcoat it, Ohio State’s performance on offense last week wasn’t all that fun to watch, yet the Buckeyes still ended up scoring 38 points. Wisconsin is by far the best defense that Ohio State has squared off against this year, but in the same respect, Ohio State has the best offense that Wisconsin has squared off against this season. The reason the Buckeye offense can have a down game and still scored 38 points is because of who they have taking the snaps for them.
J.T. Barrett commands the respect of his opponents because he can hurt them in multiple ways. Coming into last week’s game against Indiana, Barrett had thrown 14 touchdowns in the first four games of the season, so teams have to respect what he can do with his arm. If Barrett isn’t called on to pass as much, or is just ineffective throwing the football, he still has to be accounted for on the ground. Barrett is just 38 yards away from hitting 2,000 yards rushing for his Ohio State career, and with the way he has the ability to run the football, he could even get to 3,000 rushing yards by the time his career is over.
What makes this Ohio State offense so dangerous at times is that almost everybody is a threat to break a big play. Commit too many people to stopping the run and Barrett can find Noah Brown, Curtis Samuel, or a number of other receivers through the air. Try and take away the pass and the Buckeyes can run it with either the power that Mike Weber gives them, or the speed that Curtis Samuel brings to the table. Opposing defenses really have to pick their poison against the Buckeyes, and a lot of the time they end up picking wrong since Ohio State is routinely scoring at least 30 points a game.
Punt to win. In a game like this, where Wisconsin figures to get some stops on the Buckeyes, having a punter like Cameron Johnston could prove to be the difference in the game. Earlier this year when Ohio State was playing Oklahoma, Johnston proved just how valuable he is early in the game. The Sooners had just missed a field goal, and the Buckeyes had just gone three-and-out when Johnston uncorked a 68-yard punt to put Oklahoma at their own 11-yard line. Johnston flipped the field position and Ohio State responded by forcing Oklahoma to put, and the Buckeyes got the ball at Oklahoma’s 45-yard line and followed that up with a touchdown four plays later.
The punter from Australia is averaging 50.1 yards per punt so far this season, with 11 of his 17 punts coming to rest inside the 20-yard line. In a game where Wisconsin is going to be starting a young quarterback, the best offense for the Buckeyes might be to pin Wisconsin deep and try to force them into mistakes. The Badgers are going to want to keep the ball away from Ohio State in this contest, but if they can’t get any traction going because Ohio State is winning the field position battle, the outcome might just play right into Ohio State’s hands.
Wisconsin’s biggest advantages
Badger tested. In just their sixth game of the season, Wisconsin will already be playing their fourth opponent that will be ranked in the top 10. To start of the season, the Badgers played LSU at Lambeau Field, who was ranked fifth in the AP Poll at the time. The Tigers came into the game as a double-digit favorite, but the Badgers kicked a game-winning 47-yard field goal with just under four minutes to go in the game. While the Tigers hasn’t lived up to expectations this year, the win by Wisconsin still snapped LSU’s 52-game regular season winning streak against non-conference opponents.
After a win over Akron, along with a close win over Georgia State, Wisconsin again had their backs against the wall when they traveled to East Lansing to take on Michigan State, who was ranked eighth at the time. The Spartans were just coming off a big road win over Notre Dame and not many gave Wisconsin a chance to win, especially with Alex Hornibrook making his first start at quarterback. The Badgers dominated the game on their way to a 30-6 win.
Wisconsin’s luck finally ran out the next week when they lost to fourth ranked Michigan in Ann Arbor, but the Badgers gave the Wolverines all they could handle, only losing 14-7. There’s no doubt the Badgers have been tested this year, so having to go up against this Ohio State team won’t be something that scares them. If Wisconsin is able to play solid defense early on and get a couple bounces to go their way, they will give the Buckeyes all they can handle.
No swiss cheese defense here. If Wisconsin is going to win this game, there is no question it is going to be because of their defense. What jumps out the most about Wisconsin’s defense is how strong they are against the run. Eight of the last 12 opponents Wisconsin has played have failed to reach 100 yards rushing, and it’s no coincidence that Wisconsin has won all eight of those games.
The strength of the Wisconsin defense lies with their linebackers, and what makes how the Badger linebackers are playing even more impressive is knowing the unit already has lost Chris Orr and Vince Biegel for the season due to injury. Jack Cichy and T.J. Watt have really stepped up as the season has gone on, and the injuries have mounted for Wisconsin. Cichy leads Wisconsin with 35 tackles on the season, while Watt is tied for the Big Ten lead with 5.5 sacks so far this year.
If Wisconsin is going to have any chance in this game, they are going to need their run defense to set the tone early, and put the pressure on Barrett to try and beat the Badgers with his arm. The Badgers have an experienced secondary that is capable of making plays if needed. Whether it be through the air or on the ground, Wisconsin is going to make Ohio State work for every inch in this game.
Home sweet home. Ohio State may have not lost a true road game under Urban Meyer, but Camp Randall Stadium is one of the toughest venues to play at under the lights. Two of the last three times Ohio State has traveled to Wisconsin to play at night, the Buckeyes have left Madison with a loss. In 2010, Ohio State was the top ranked team in the country but Wisconsin dealt them a 31-18 loss. In 2008, Ohio State narrowly earned a 20-17 victory over the Badgers, and in 2003 Wisconsin halted Ohio State’s 19-game winning streak.
Even in Urban Meyer’s only trip to Wisconsin in 2012, the Badgers took Ohio State to the limit before the Buckeyes squeezed out a 21-14 victory in overtime. Since 2004, Wisconsin has posted a 75-9 record at Camp Randall Stadium, which is the second-best home record in the Big Ten, only trailing Ohio State’s 80-9 home record. Something about the Wisconsin crowd at night gives the Badgers a little extra energy on the field, and even though Ohio State has already traveled to Oklahoma this year, the crowd in Madison will be even more intense than what the Buckeyes saw in Norman.
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 30, Wisconsin 16
Win Probability: Ohio State 78%
Wisconsin’s defense will hold Ohio State to their lowest point output of the season, but with the inexperience of Alex Hornibrook, the Badgers just won’t be able to put enough points on the board to truly threaten the Buckeyes. Ohio State’s defense will likely bring a lot of pressure and try and force Hornibrook into interceptions like he threw against Michigan, and with how the Buckeyes are forcing turnovers so far this season, the interceptions might not stop at three.
This has the feeling like one of those games where Wisconsin comes out firing and the Ohio State offense looks pretty bad to start, but as the game goes on J.T. Barrett and company start to find their legs and eventually put a little distance on the Badgers. Turnovers and special teams will likely be the difference in this one, as it’s hard to imagine Ohio State going the length of the field very much on this stout Badger defense.